They are everywhere. Ernesto “Che” Guevara T-shirts and other merchandise. To some people Che was a hero, to some he was little more than a killer. To others, he’s just this familiar face so often seen on T-shirts. I’m not going to discuss Che as a political figure here. My aim is to look at him as a pop culture icon.
Che’s adventurous life of a revolutionary ended when he was executed in 1967. Since then, many people have seen him as a symbol of revolution and freedom, even a martyr. What is interesting, though, is that the most famous photograph of Che (Guerrillero Heroico, taken by Alberto Korda, later used by many pop artists) is sold worldwide the way Star Wars or Transformers merchandise is, even though Che himself was so opposed to consumer culture.
There’s no doubt that many people who wear Che T-shirts actually do know who the man was, but there’s quite obviously a significant amount of people who do not. They buy the T-shirts simply because they like the image on them. They buy them because to them Che’s face looks like (an indeed is, though some do not even know that) the face of an intellectual revolutionary and it symbolizes rebellion against popular trends. Only how can wearing a Che T-shirt mean going against trends when wearing one has actually become an extremely popular trend itself? Wearing a Che T-shirt won’t make one a rebel anymore. Che has become part of the very culture he despised. His face is almost as recognizable as Marilyn Monroe’s or Elvis Presley’s. The popularity of his image among young (though not only young) people has been parodied in different shows. Che’s case shows how much a good photograph can do. It also reminds us that popular culture is focused mostly on the visual. It’s focused on images rather than significant information.
Below, you can see screenshots from an episode of the anime Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei that deal with the Guevara issue.
It seems very likely that many teenagers who find the Che T-shirts attractive would indeed find learning about his history quite boring. Most are perfectly satisfied with just looking at and wearing his image. And many actually believe they seem more rebellious when they own a Che T-shirt or pendant. Of course the fact that we are quick to assume that a young person wearing a Che T-shirt doesn’t know who he was is unfair to those young people who actually do know. But sometimes it’s hard to fight the urge to ask: “Hey, do you even know what the guy on your T-shirt did?”
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